Heard It Through the Pipeline
Leading a guest through the headquarters of the radio station known throughout Broward County as the Pipeline, owner and manager Jerry Lyddane sounds like a successful media entrepreneur trying to impress an investor with a can't-miss business prospectus.
"Now look at this," he gushes, striding over to what appears to be a stack of stereo components gathering dust in a corner. "This is my latest project." Pausing for dramatic effect, Lyddane flips down the front of one of the stacked metal boxes, exposing a thin flat panel loaded with tiny wires, switches, and shiny metal bits.
Could it be... a circuit board?
Impatient at his guest's inability to grasp what should be obvious to any first-semester DeVry Tech gadgethead, Lyddane explains that what we're looking at is a transmitter -- a very powerful transmitter -- one that is shortly going to double the range of his ability to break the law 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Despite a defiantly entrepreneurial attitude, Lyddane is no businessman. Without a broadcast license and with no plans to get one, he is, rather, Broward County's most powerful radio pirate. Every day, his station at FM 96.9 illegally broadcasts a thrown-together mishmash of heavy metal, psychedelic grunge, speed-thrash, deadhead anthems, aimless chitchat, and occasional spaces of dead air throughout the county.
It's a scheme that seems increasingly risky. Within the past three months, the Federal Communications Commission raided five Florida pirate radio stations -- three in Tampa, one in West Palm Beach, and one in Miami -- in a highly publicized crackdown that cost the raided pirates thousands of dollars in seized equipment.
The news has set Lyddane's nerves on edge, especially the fact that one of the raided pirates, L. D. Brewer of Tampa, was the supplier of much of the equipment for the Pipeline. Last week Lyddane cut his transmitting power from 350 to 25 watts after reading a newspaper story about the FCC crackdown, and he now scrutinizes every call that comes into the station with Caller I.D. before picking up.
Lyddane's caution, however, quickly fell victim to pride and a boyish enthusiasm for testing the limits of both technology and authority. Within a day of cutting power, Lyddane had the Pipeline powered back up to its usual 350 watts, at which strength it can be heard from the beach in the east to the sawgrass in the west, from Linton Boulevard in the north to the Miami-Dade County line in the south.
He doesn't plan to dial back the power again. Indeed, he's getting ready to crank it up instead. When his new transmitter comes on line, which he hopes will be sometime in the spring, the Pipeline will be transmitting at 1500 watts, enough power to double the range and vastly increase the clarity of his signal. "This station is going to kick some ass," he promises.
Compared to other South Florida pirates -- a furtive crowd who operate for the most part at less than 100 watts, the average for illegal broadcasters nationwide -- Lyddane's station looms over the spectrum the same way the 95-foot homemade antenna tower in his backyard looms over the neighborhood.
His studio, actually a storeroom in the house Lyddane shares with two dogs, is usually inhabited by a panoply of friends and acquaintances. Jeff Stoll, a daytime biomedical engineer and nighttime DJ, punches in a tune by Metallica and lights up a cigarette. The knowledge that smoking on the air wouldn't be allowed in a professional studio makes the butt taste all the sweeter.
For all the attitude, though, this underground station isn't the bastion of political or musical revolution you might expect. Elsewhere in the country, radio pirates are busy mixing politics with their playlists. For the past two years, for instance, a West Coast pirate named Stephen Dunifer has been battling the FCC in court while continuing to broadcast in a hard-to-trace mobile studio. Dunifer scored a procedural victory in November, convincing a District Court judge to agree to consider his claim that the FCC's ban on unlicensed low-power radio broadcasting was an unconstitutional infringement of his right to free speech.
Here at the Pipeline, the focus is more on having a good time while tinkering with the technology. The playlist is more commonplace than cutting-edge, dominated by a plethora of headbanging tunes from the Eighties and drama rock from the Seventies, with occasional forays into other styles and genres. Tonight's lineup features extended multiple-song excursions into Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, and the J. Geils Band.
As Lyddane flips through an envelope filled with jottings and phone numbers of listeners who have called in, he comes across a to-do list from the station's early days. It lists such things as "#4 -- Free Ads" and "#5 -- Local Bands" and "#8 -- Stickers." But the list leads off with "#1 -- Party."
The party hasn't been hard to find. Lyddane quickly discovered a host of bands and bar owners perfectly happy to cater to him in return for free publicity: "It's amazing. When you walk into a bar and they find out you run a radio station, they're all over you."
Still, if the FCC has its way, someday the party will have a price tag. Unauthorized broadcasting carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and a $1000 fine, says John Winston, assistant chief of the FCC's Compliance and Information Bureau in Washington, D.C.
Pirate stations can be dangerous, Winston maintains, because they risk jamming vital signals in and around airports; two recent raids on South Florida pirates focused on stations operating near airports. They also destroy the system of order the FCC seeks to impose on the radio spectrum, in the same way that road signs and lane markers impose order on highways. "There are reasons for the rules we have in this society," asserts Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. "You can't drive, fish, or hunt without a license. Why should you be able to broadcast?"
The damage done by pirates is economic. "If they're hurting anyone, they're hurting the commercial stations," according to David Camp, a Fort Lauderdale-based freelance broadcast engineer. The concern is not so much interference. Most commercial stations in South Florida broadcast at 50,000 watts, a level that leaves them with little to fear from puny pirates such as the Pipeline. Licensed station owners are concerned about losing audience.
Six months ago Bill Ligue moved to Broward County from Chicago. Initially, he listened to ZETA (WZTA-FM 94.9), but he soon grew tired of it. "It was just the same old repetitious stuff."
Then one day just a couple of months ago, he was flipping the dial and came across the Pipeline. Soon he was calling in and requesting songs. Then he was hanging out in the studio and driving around town with Pipeline fliers pasted on the windows of his van. "I told all my friends."
Another recent convert, Darrell Fowler, works at Monarch Dodge as the prep manager for all new and used cars. He first heard the Pipeline when he was testing the reception of new radios in Chryslers. Now he listens to almost nothing else. "We like Eighties heavy metal, and you can't hear it anywhere else," he says. Now every car that rolls off the line in Fowler's shop has its radio tuned to 96.9.
Every listener whom Lyddane manages to steal from a commercial station makes him that much happier. "People call up all the time and say, 'Man, I just heard you, and I'm never listening to another station.' It's a great feeling."
Compared to the cost of commercial broadcasting, it's a cheap high.
Obtaining an FCC license can cost a commercial radio station upwards of $100,000, and for many stations the expense doesn't end there. Most stations must hire a freelance consultant to inspect their operations and equipment annually to make sure they're still in compliance with FCC regulations.
Lyddane constructs his antennae from used boat railings made of anodized aluminum that he picks up for about $15 apiece. Similar antennae of the type used by most commercial stations retail for about $900, he says. His music costs are also low. "People are always coming by and dropping off CDs, because they know I'll play them." Sure enough, as he's talking a listener named Theresa knocks and, without waiting for an answer, saunters in with a J. Geils Band CD she wants to hear. Five minutes later it's on the air.
For all the hype surrounding the FCC's recent crackdown, some pirates believe they've still got the FCC outnumbered. Lyddane is personally acquainted with two other pirates just in Broward County; Miami, he says, is home to at least a score. Shortly after Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994, they slashed the FCC budget, forcing the agency to close field offices across the country, including one in Miami.
Today there's only one FCC field office left in Florida, in Tampa, and David Camp thinks the office is little more than a receptacle for voice-mail messages that seldom get returned. "It's not that the FCC doesn't take them [pirates] seriously," he says. "They just don't have the manpower."
Part of Lyddane's nonchalance is based on experience. His one brush with the FCC occurred when he was a teenager operating an illegal ham radio station out of his bedroom. At a time when CB radios were limited by law to four watts, Lyddane was running 1200 watts. Eventually, the FCC sent an agent to inspect his equipment and subsequently fined him $950. Lyddane ignored the letters, and eventually they stopped coming. "I think I've still got one. I kept it as a souvenir.
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